My own views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were confirmed by both the horrific massacre of 7 October and its brutal aftermath in Gaza. Already on 4 August this year several academic colleagues of mine and I had issued an online letter headlined “The Elephant in the Room” in which we called attention to the fact that even the protesters against Benjamin Netanyahu’s so-called judicial reform were refusing to address the occupation, which is at the root of his efforts to undermine the Israeli Supreme Court — the last and already weakened bulwark against authoritarianism and illiberal democracy. The Hamas attack, therefore, was shocking but not surprising, since while it constituted a war crime and a crime against humanity, it was a manifestation of the structural and systematic injustice of Palestinian displacement since 1948, the 56-year-long occupation, and the 16-year siege of the Gaza Strip. What many of us had warned about finally came to pass.
Nor is the extent of Israel’s response surprising. This violence is not merely about destroying Hamas or punishing the Gazan population. It is about the refusal of Israeli leaders to consider any peaceful resolution to the conflict that would entail sharing the land in which seven million Jews and seven million Palestinians reside under radically different legal and political systems. The destruction of Gaza is intended to ensure the perpetuation of occupation, settlement, displacement, and quite possibly ethnic cleansing. Both Hamas and Netanyahu’s cabinet see the current crisis as an opportunity – with Hamas even more bitterly sworn to destroy Israel, and security minister Itamar Ben Gvir, finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, and other extremists, even more determined to empty the Land of Israel (which they define as including the West Bank, Gaza, and possibly also part of Lebanon) of its Arab population and settle it with Jews.
If we speak of the left in Israel, there was hardly anything left of it before 7 October, and there is even less now. It is startling how many self-proclaimed leftists now claim to have been “awakened” to reality: that there is no choice but to use all available means to put the Palestinians back in their place, to re-establish Israeli deterrence, and to accept that all hopes for a peaceful resolution were illusory. This attitude, a product of 7 October, may change. But it also reflects what we warned about in August: that most Israelis don’t want to discuss the occupation and refuse to see it as the cause of the ongoing violence. Perhaps the war in Gaza, which one can’t quite see ending in anything resembling a victory for Israel, will change people’s minds and help them realise the Palestinian issue cannot be resolved by force. Or perhaps, as some in Israel suggest, it will transform it into a truly Spartan society, geared to eternal war. I think the odds on either outcome are even.
Part of the Israeli left’s turn to the right comes from its sense of betrayal by the world’s left, especially, perhaps, by the Jewish left. Israelis see little of what the IDF has wrought on Gaza and attribute talk of the suffering there to anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic sentiments. That leftists in Europe and the US, including some Jewish organisations and individuals, object to the war in Gaza and demand a ceasefire is betrayal enough. Added to this is growing support for the Palestinian cause. This support, coming from the left, is already regarded in Israel as a threat to its existence; when it is occasionally accompanied by anti-Semitic rhetoric, along with statistics on the rise of anti-Semitism (often, if fact, emanating from the extreme right), Israelis proclaim that the whole world is against them. The few in Israel who stand up against this narrative are perceived as traitors, and may even expect the police to pay them a visit if they make statements on their WhatsApp messages. Meanwhile, intellectual leaders such as university presidents are warning, reprimanding, or suspending faculty members who express sympathy for Palestinian civilian victims in Gaza.
In Israel, then, when speaking of the left, with a few brave but ineffective exceptions, one can speak for the moment of “the treason of the intellectuals” – reminiscent of Julien Benda’s observation in his brilliant 1927 essay, “La Trahison des Clercs”. The rest of the left in Europe and the US should mobilise to help what remains of the Israeli left find a just path to sharing that blood-soaked land by its long-suffering Jewish and Palestinian inhabitants, lest the forces of reaction, authoritarianism, fascism, and religious fanaticism consume it entirely.
This article is part of the series What It Means to Be Jewish Now.